Canadians spent $2.5 billion last year to operate the country’s penitentiary system, so you’d expect they’d be entitled to timely information about how it’s functioning. They’re not getting it. A key report on the operation of Correctional Service of Canada was suppressed by the previous Conservative regime and was withheld from public release by the new Liberal government for five months. The annual report of correctional investigator Howard Sapers, an ombudsman who is mandated by law to investigate prisoner complaints, was released publicly yesterday (March 10), nine months after Sapers gave it to Conservative Public Safety Minster Steven Blaney.
A veteran Liberal MP who once oversaw Canada’s federal prison system says at least one convict-run penitentiary farm among six shuttered by the Conservatives should be reopened and he’s pushing his caucus to do it. “I’m certainly encouraging it be done and I hope the government, when they do their financial analysis, see the worth of doing that,” Wayne Easter (inset) told me, in a recent interview. Easter was Public Safety critic leading up to the October 2015 election. He was solicitor general in the Chretien government in 2003, with responsibility for the Correctional Service. Easter said he planned to meet this week with the new Liberal Public Safety minister, Ralph Goodale.
Ralph Goodale (inset), the Saskatchewan farm boy now in charge of Canada’s federal prison system, could swiftly do one small thing that would send a big signal that the Harper legacy of punitive correctional policies will be dismantled. Goodale should move quickly to restore convict-operated farms at penitentiaries across the country. Six pen farms in five provinces were shuttered by the Conservative government in 2010, for no justifiably good reason. Really, Goodale may have no choice. A vocal and remarkably persistent lobby group based in Ontario has a signed promise (read it after the jump) from the Liberals, obtained before the October federal election, to reopen one of the prison farms. It isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that if reopening one is a good idea, it’s worth reopening all of them.
Contaminants that cause cancer, neurological impairment and a host of other ailments have been found in soil around a closed federal prison in Kingston, Ontario at concentrations as high as 93 times federal guidelines, secret documents reveal. Copies of the documents, two briefing notes prepared by Corrections Canada for Public Safety Minster Steven Blaney, were obtained by Cancrime (read them in full after the jump). One briefing note, dated January 29, 2014, reported that “widespread soil contamination” was found around 179-year-old Kingston Penitentiary, which ceased to operate as a prison in September 2013. The note explains that lead, arsenic and hexavalent chromium – substances described in the note as “hazardous to human health” – were found “in exceedance of Federal and Provincial guidelines.” Corrections Canada, which will conduct an open house on the issue today (April 25) in Kingston, has revealed publicly only that areas around the prison show “preliminary evidence of possible soil contamination.” Information posted online at a website established by Corrections – the agency that manages the federal prison system – omits many details contained in the briefing notes, notably that the contaminants were found at levels far in excess of federal guidelines.
It’s hard to tell who has it right when it comes to “explicit” entertainment that is accessible to roughly 15,000 convicts in more than 50 federal penitentiaries across Canada. Frederik Boisvert, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney was quoted today in a Postmedia News story as saying that his former boss, Vic Toews, instructed Corrections Canada “to eliminate sexually explicit television programming.” Said Boisvert: “We have been assured that prisoners cannot access this material.” This unequivocal claim appears to be contradicted by a procurement notice posted in May this year on a website that advertises government contracts that are open to bidders. The notice, for a $1.7-million contract to provide cable TV service to nine federal penitentiaries in British Columbia, noted that the service could not feature “sexually explicit” adult channels, but some basic channels could contain “explicit content.”
What is Canada’s federal prison system worth? It’s a sprawling network of 75 properties that cover more than 6,000 hectares (that’s roughly the size of 10,000 Canadian football fields) across the country and includes 56 institutions. The figures come from an internal 2008 Corrections Canada document (after the jump) that was made public some time ago by the Information Transparency Project, a group based in Kingston, Ontario. The group says it obtained the document through Access to Information law. Though the doc is five years old, it contains a fascinating figure, the estimated replacement cost for the entire prison system. The price tag is a whopping $5 billion. That’s enough cash to build more than 450 typical elementary schools.
The new political boss of Canada’s prison system appears to have ignored privacy laws, interfered politically in a system governed strictly by the law and intentionally sought to mislead the public. At least, this is what we can infer from the public statement of rookie Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, issued with lightning speed soon after media across Canada matched the story reported first at Cancrime that serial sex killer Paul Bernardo asked for a transfer to a lower security prison. Blaney was quick to announce that he had been assured by Corrections Canada that there there are “no plans” to move Bernardo to a medium-security penitentiary. Blaney’s terse statement was confirmation that Corrections had refused to provide about Bernardo’s intentions and an indication that the minister stuck his nose in where he had no business.
The federal politician who has stage managed some of the biggest changes in the federal prison system in its 178-year history is calling it quits. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (inset) announced he’s quitting the federal cabinet and politics “in order to focus on my family and to pursue opportunities in the private sector.” (his full statement after the jump). Under Toews, the budget of Corrections Canada has swollen by more than 50%, from roughly $2 billion in 2006-07 to an estimated $3 billion in projected spending in 2012-13. Toews legacy likely will be that he permitted the creation of a dysfunctional, tax-sucking system more like the repressive penitentiary regime of the 19th century – a system that spews out angrier, more violent and embittered ex-convicts who are just as likely to commit more crimes. (UPDATE: July 15, 2013 Prime Minister Stephen Harper named Quebec MP Steven Blaney as Toews’ replacement)